Cris Cab, 18, has the talent and support to succeed on his musical mission. Perhaps the most striking thing about Cris Cab is not his talent, although that is considerable, or the charmed, precisely charted path that seems to be leading him toward musical stardom. No, what stands out most about this rising Miami artist is how the uncertain mix of shy earnestness, goofiness and bravado that mark him as an 18-year-old drops away when you ask him what he wants, replaced by a startling focus. “You always want to be on top of your game and doing the best you can, pushing yourself every day,” says Cris (real name Cristian Cabrerizo).
His gray-blue eyes going laser bright with the desire that’s been driving him since he began teaching himself guitar at age 11. “I’m just so into music. I want it so bad I can taste it kind of thing. I’ve always been inspired to make music and spread it to the world.” His mother confirms the “always” part. Vivian Cabrerizo says that as a baby, Cristian would hum along with the lullabies she sang to him. “The first time he did it I said ‘Oh I’m imagining things,'” she says. “Then I finally realized he was definitely keeping the tune with me.” The son of Cuban immigrants raised in the monied Miami suburbs of Pinecrest and Coral Gables, Cris has already earned a rare degree of musical success, with the prospect of much more.
Videos of his original pop-reggae tunes and covers of hits by the likes of Kanye West have gotten more than a million hits on YouTube, and a release party for his independently produced first CD, “Foreward,” drew 800 people to a downtown Miami club last month. And while his parents’ help has been considerable – his developer-father built him a recording studio – it was Cris’ talent and drive that drew the attention of one of pop music’s most influential figures. Pharrell Williams, who as half of the production duo The Neptunes is responsible for hits by stars from Jay-Z to Britney Spears, has been backing and mentoring him for more than two years.
Now the Miami-based songwriter and producer says Cris will be one of the first three artists on Williams’ new label, I Am Other, aimed at launching a generation of self-motivated, Internet-savvy musical talent. “They’re not getting the recognition in the mainstream media,” Williams, 38, said from a Miami Beach recording studio. “But in the digital world they dominate – the 16-, 17-, 18-year-old virtuosos all over the world coming out of nowhere and just taking stake in their position – and Cris is one of them.” He compares Cris and his compatriots to the mutant superheroes of X-Men comic-book and movie fame.
“It’s almost like we have a school of Xavier,” he says. “They know exactly what they’re interested in and they chase their curiosities and feel like they’re never full. I love it because they have this energy that they cannot be stopped.” Cris began his trajectory at 11, when he saw a friend playing guitar at school and decided it was “the coolest thing ever.” He wheedled a guitar from his parents, and though he had lessons, he mostly taught himself through videos and online instruction, emulating tunes of Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan and the vocals of reggae artists and soul singers like Marvin Gaye. “There are so many ways to learn online, it’s just amazing,” he says.
His songs are often about girls, regret and rejection. In “Good Girls,” a catchy, made-for-summer tune, he sings of losing a girlfriend because he doesn’t appreciate her fully. In “My Life,” he proclaims his ability to forge his own path. “I write about everything, what I’ve experienced, different situations – I tell stories,” he says. “Everyone says I have an old soul. I like talking about things that are timeless.” He supplements his experience with what he sees around him and online. “If I haven’t lived it, I’ve seen enough. Now with the Internet and movies, you can experience a whole life without living that life.”
By 13, Cris was writing songs and performing at parties and school talent shows. His mother says the family thought their middle child (Cris has an older brother and younger sister) was talented, but they didn’t take his musical ability much more seriously than his aptitude for sports. “You definitely encourage it, but you don’t want to get their hopes too high,” she says. Attitudes changed after a family friend brought Cris at age 15 to play for Williams. “More than anything I saw his conviction,” Williams says. “Cris really connected to what he was playing. You could see it was something that was radiating from his personality.”
The moment was crucial for the young artist: “I was like ‘If he says it’s crap I’m gonna die.'” Instead, Williams gave him advice on song structure. “The next year I was working night and day on what he told me,” Cris says. When he returned to Williams a year later, the producer thought, “Whoa, OK, this guy, he’s got it.” It was a turning point for Cris. “I was always hoping music would be my career,” he says. “That second meeting with Pharrell was when I thought it was real.” That career is fast becoming a reality. Cris began posting videos on YouTube and recording songs this winter, releasing his debut CD shortly after graduating from Christopher Columbus High School in May.
Plans for college or music school have been put on hold. The relationship with Williams certainly seems to have brought the young singer-songwriter a rare degree of resources and music industry attention. He has a high-powered publicist and management company, and in March he played a showcase in New York for top executives of major labels including Universal Motown and Warner Music Group. In June he toured venues in the Northeast, including hyper-hip New York club Webster Hall, backed by members of Williams’ band, N*E*R*D The situation is reminiscent of the way hip-hop star Usher propelled Justin Bieber’s career. But Cris’ soulful songs sound more like reggae-esque John Mayer than bubblegum dance pop.
At a recent session at Studio 26, in a warehouse owned by his father, he recorded with Supa Dups, a Miami-based producing powerhouse who has worked with Eminem, John Legend and Bruno Mars. They were working up a song for which Cris had just written lyrics, a regretful ode to a girl who had spurned him. Supa Dups played a bass- and drum-heavy rhythmic track, listened closely as Cris improvised on guitar, and then changed the track to match. “Cris makes real music, there’s substance to it,” said Supa Dups, a Jamaican of Chinese ancestry. After a friend sent him a link to Cris’ YouTube videos, he said, he was drawn by his talent and the prospect of launching a reggae-style artist with potential pop appeal.
“I said I have to work with this dude, this dude is insane,” Supa Dups says. “When I found out how young he was I’m like damn, that’s a lot of talent for a little 17-year-old.” The entertainment world can also be harsh, particularly for young talent. But Williams says he’s looking to develop an artist for the long haul, not score a Bieber-style blowup. “Sensations come and go,” he says. “We’re looking at the kids who are super serious and are really, really talented.
Cris is setting himself up to be a phenomenon because of how hard he studies, how hard he works, how hard he rehearses. … His creative brain never shuts off. I’m saying this is the new definition of where artists are going.” For all the cutting-edge resources and promotional synergy propelling Cris, the inspiration driving him is as old as music. “I just love what I do,” he says. “It’s not in a cocky way. But when you love something so much you just have to go after it.”